The options at Trump’s disposal could range from pushing for new legislation to pressuring US regulators to sue the companies, none of which are guaranteed to accomplish what the president is threatening to do.
The most “obvious” course of action would be for Trump to seek changes to the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech platforms from legal liability for a wide range of online content, according to Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.
There has been an ongoing push, led by the Justice Department and Republicans in Congress, to do just that. But changing the law would require building broad consensus in a deadlocked Congress. The Trump administration could not go it alone. And a new law that specifies how tech companies must police their platforms could raise questions about the law’s constitutionality.
“This is just another example of Trump thinking that the Constitution makes him a king, but it doesn’t,” said David Vladeck, a Georgetown University law professor and former senior Federal Trade Commission official.
“I do think although [FCC Chairman Ajit] Pai has a good relationship with the president, and they have partnered on some things, I think he is still maintaining his independence,” added one telecom industry official, speaking from his experience interacting regularly with the agency.
Schwartzman said one way Trump could seek to “harass” social media companies would be to pressure the FCC to deny those companies licenses for unrelated experiments involving satellite internet or wireless spectrum. (Google and Facebook have both tinkered with beaming high-speed internet to consumers from drones, balloons or even from space.) But those types of actions would not substantially affect the companies’ core businesses.
Trump could try to appoint allies to the FTC who might be willing to launch still more probes, experts said, but the laws governing independent bodies such as the FTC make them harder to politicize than a cabinet agency such as the Justice Department. The FTC is composed of five commissioners who serve staggered terms, and their decisions are also subject to judicial review.
Barr has alluded to complaints of anti-conservative bias on several occasions. In December, he told an audience of state attorneys general that the Communications Decency Act “has enabled platforms to absolve themselves completely of responsibility for policing their platforms, while blocking or removing third-party speech — including political speech — selectively, and with impunity.”
Despite the limitations, growing tensions with the White House could still be perceived as a threat to the companies. Twitter and Facebook saw their shares dip on Wednesday on a day when the overall market was up.